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Full City Council to Review Bruce's Beach Plaque Language in 'Study Session'

Nov 17, 2021 09:08AM ● By Jeanne Fratello

A proposed spot along the Strand where a new plaque commemorating the Bruce family would be located.

The convoluted journey toward new Bruce's Beach plaques in Manhattan Beach took another unexpected twist on Tuesday, as members of the Manhattan Beach City Council could not agree how to finalize plaque language. After a plan to appoint a two-member subcommittee fizzled, the council voted, 4-1, for the entire council to hold a "study session" to work on the language together.

While almost all members expressed some dissatisfaction with the compromise, in the end, Councilmember Joe Franklin was the lone dissenting vote.

The concept of a two-person council subcommittee to review and edit plaque language was brought forward on November 2, when the City Council agreed, 5-0, to disband the Bruce's Beach Task Force's History Advisory Board without accepting the advisory board's proposed language. At the time, the council agreed that the mayor would have the prerogative to choose the two members of the subcommittee.

Manhattan Beach Mayor Hildy Stern announced prior to Tuesday's meeting that she was choosing herself and Councilmember Richard Montgomery to serve on the subcommittee. 

But when the agenda item came up on Tuesday, Franklin almost immediately made a motion for himself to replace the mayor and serve on the subcommittee with Montgomery.

"I would appreciate my chance to help with this task and I’d be a set of fresh eyes," said Franklin, who was not yet a councilmember last year when the Bruce's Beach Task Force was formed. "I know the material as well as anyone else."

However, Mayor Pro Tem Steve Napolitano weighed in, "Given the past comments made on this issue, I think what we should strive for is some sort of balance. I think it should be [Mayor] Stern, and [Councilmembers] Montgomery or Franklin. Not because of 'left' and 'right,' but because of institutional knowledge, and a set of fresh eyes."

Then Montgomery said that in the interest of "letting someone new take a hack at it," he would decline the subcommittee position and let Franklin take his spot. "[Joe] is a better editor than I am," he added.

Yet Stern pressed for carrying out the subcommittee as she had proposed. "This is quite surprising to me to hear this challenge at this time," she said. "This appointment was really made as a way to bring this conversation together. It would be something we could be proudly handing back to council," she said. "[Richard Montgomery] and I realized we could work together, and we could continue to work together. "

As the debate continued on, Napolitano called the discussion "a lot of political nonsense." He proposed that the council either handle it all together, or hand off the job to an outside firm.

"Why don't we have a council study session where all five of us hammer this out, and/or we hire that professional firm that even the History Advisory Board said they would welcome?" said Napolitano. "If we can’t even agree who should be appointed, then everyone should step away and we should hand it away to someone who can."

Members then voted 4-1 on Napolitano's substitute motion to take the issue up together as a council, at some unspecified date.

Council Rejected Language From History Advisory Board

The proposed new plaque (or plaques) commemorating Bruce's Beach has caused ongoing disagreements among City Council members for several months.

On July 20, the History Advisory Board of the Bruce's Beach Task Force had presented proposed plaque language to City Council. One plaque would be on the Strand in front of the L.A. County Lifeguard Headquarters, which is the original site of the Bruce family property; and one would replace the existing plaque at Bruce's Beach Park facing Highland Ave. 

At that time, the City Council voted to send the proposed plaque language back to the history panel for further review.

Following the council's July 20 action, Isla Garraway, a member of the Bruce's Beach History Advisory Board resigned from the panel in protest. Garraway pointed out that the proposed plaque used language directly from the Bruce's Beach history report that the City Council had accepted on June 15.

"When the City Council began refuting the facts derived from the report that it had previously accepted, it was clear that I could no longer play an effective role," Garraway told DigMB at the time.

Then on November 2, the remaining members of the History Advisory Board presented updated language for two plaques (which can be seen here in the November 3 City Council Agenda under Agenda Item 17).

Yet the proposed language, with approximately 2,000 total words, again came under criticism from some council members for being too wordy and exceeding its intended scope.

It was at that meeting that the City Council disbanded the History Advisory Board and agreed to form its own subcommittee.

Bruce's Beach Task Force Background

The call for a new plaque and language to amplify the story of the Bruce family was one of the central recommendations of the Bruce's Beach Task Force and its History Advisory Board. 

The Bruce's Beach Task Force was formed in October 2020 and was disbanded in March, but one of its subcommittees, the History Advisory Board, needed more time to conclude its work.

The work of the history panel had been delayed because the Los Angeles County Hall of Records had been closed to the public for historic research because of the pandemic. A flood and resulting water damage in the building had caused additional delays in accessing materials.

Now that the History Advisory Board has been dissolved, the City Council will need to refine any new plaque language on its own.

The plaque controversy calls to mind the council's inability to agree on an "apology" to the Bruce family as drafted by the Bruce's Beach Task Force. The disagreement had caused three City Council members to draft their own separate resolutions.

Bruce's Beach Background

The story of Bruce's Beach dates back to the early 1900s, when Charles and Willa Bruce built a popular Black beach resort in Manhattan Beach. The property was one of the very few beaches where Black residents could go, because most other Southern California beaches were off-limits to people of color. 

By the end of the 1920s, with pressure from community members who did not want Black beachgoers in town, Manhattan Beach's Board of Trustees (a precursor to the modern city council) claimed the land under eminent domain and displaced the Bruce family as well as other families who had settled in the area. That land was acquired by the state of California in 1948, and was transferred to L.A. County in 1995.

It was not until 2006 that the city of Manhattan Beach publicly acknowledged this chapter of its history by naming the area east of the beachfront property Bruce's Beach Park and establishing a plaque in that location. In the summer of 2020, a movement began growing for the city to take further action to recognize the Bruces.

In April 2021, the City Council approved, by a 4-1 vote, a resolution "acknowledging, empathizing and condemning" the city's past "racially motivated condemnation of properties" in the area, although stopping short of a formal apology. 

There have been two separate paths of attempted action; one, at the county and state level with legislation to return the land to the Bruces; and two, at the city level, where the city of Manhattan Beach is continuing to discuss how best to recognize its history.

SB 796, legislation giving state authorization to return county-owned beachfront property to the Bruce family, was signed into law in Manhattan Beach by California Governor Gavin Newsom on September 29. That process continues to unfold.

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